Each year, I feel a sense of excitement when Spotify sends me my year end report—detailing all my top songs, top music, and the hours of time spent devoted to the circular green app with those three curved lines.
Seeing that number explode into 5+ digits of minutes streaming music always gave me a sense of accomplishment; as though I passed my time well and devoted myself to a better understanding of the world through podcasts, music, and, of course, the occasional Tibetan bowl mixtape for ideal, relaxation vibes.
I believed with firm conviction that my participation in the streaming culture—with subscriptions to Netflix, Spotify, Pandora, and the like—made me morally superior compared to those who lived in the throwaway era in terms of environmental impact. After all, I rarely purchased a CD or DVD, and never had a mixtape in my life. Committing myself to a streaming-only lifestyle seemed like an easy choice for how to best care for the environment.
It turns out, however, it’s not that simple.
The Emergence of Streaming Services
In 2019, The New York Times published a story called “The Streaming Era Has Finally Arrived. Everything Is About To Change.” The article cited the emergence of streaming services, starting with the creation of Netflix in 2007, and moved onto the increasing number of media corporations investing in streaming services.
Since the inception of streaming in 2007, streaming services have taken over the Internet. The 2019 Global Internet Phenomena Report revealed that video streaming accounted for over 60% of Internet traffic, while GreenPeace.org’s “Clicking Clean Report” discovered that Netflix alone accounted for over one-third of internet traffic in North America—a figure growing at a rapid rate.
User choice for streaming has exploded as well, with platforms available for live streams of video games, movies, friends, family, and anything else under the sun.
With more choices available, more streaming occurs. And streaming takes up a lot of energy.
A High-Energy System
In a collaborative study by the University of Glasgow and the University of Olso, the researchers compared the environmental impact of music streaming to the impact of all the plastic CDs, CD cases, and other music-related packaged used in the pre-streaming era.
Contrary to what may be expected, the environmental impact of music streaming far outweighed that of its plastic counterpart due to the high environmental cost of electricity needed to sustain the appetite for digital music consumption in the new, streaming era.
Dr. Kyle Devine, Associate Professor in Music at the University of Oslo stated, “From a carbon emissions perspective, the transition towards streaming recorded music from internet-connected devices has resulted in significantly higher carbon emissions than at any previous point in the history of music.”
Their research estimated that the demand for 24/7 music streaming resulted in over 350,000 tonnes of greenhouse gases per year, or the equivalent of 68,597 passenger vehicles driven for a 12-month period.
And for video streaming? It’s closer to 300 million.
Streaming More Sustainably
Before you shut off all your devices, it’s important to know that not all streaming services are created equal.
A key part of the environmental impact comes from the energy a company relies on, which is why reports like Greenpeace’s “2017 Clicking Clean Report” seek to educate consumers on what companies are making the biggest strides in the clean energy sector.
While some streaming services such as Pandora received an “F” for low levels on the clean energy index and a general lack of energy transparency, others like YouTube and iTunes garnered an “A” on the report card for high scores in energy transparency, renewable procurement, and energy efficiency and mitigation.
Companies focusing on cleaner, greener energy sources and renewable energy are on the rise, helping to mitigate the effects they’d otherwise have on the planet. The report highlights streaming services from Google, Apple, and YouTube as some of the best in terms of renewable energy decisions, with Spotify, Netflix, and Hulu in murkier territory.
The most important takeaway from reports like these is to remember that where we stream matters. Our consumer decision to invest or divest can make a huge decision in influencing corporations on where to spend their dollars and where their energy comes from.
This year, I’ll be thinking twice about my end-of-year streaming figures on Spotify. Those 5+ digits won’t feel the same way they used to.
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Photo: Rakhmat Suwandi via Unsplash